I first wrote about the importance of a Business Continuity plan in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, but as we encounter new challenges like COVID-19, we need to constantly monitor and update. While we can’t plan for every disaster, we also can’t expect to experience the same disasters over and over. On top of that, environmental disasters strike locally, yet many businesses today are global, so there is no collective “down time” to recover.
This is why the goal of business continuity planning is to have an optimized plan that works for the widest range of possibilities.
As a member of the leadership team, during a disaster or business interruption you have the following responsibilities:
- To make sure employees are safe;
- To ensure that employees have access and information about how to obtain resources both from your office (to continue working, if that is the plan, and paychecks and benefits); and from regulatory authorities (health & safety) to the best of your abilities; and
- To provide as minimally uninterrupted services to your clients as possible.
The following are elements you should consider for your business continuity plan:
1. Create an Internal Communications Plan
Several years ago, my company had advance warnings that one of our offices was in the path for not one but two storms of the century so we created two communications plans: a group text and WhatsApp. WhatsApp allows you to send messages without a signal (they won’t be delivered until you get a signal but you can hit send and it will queue). Unfortunately, we didn’t consider the fact that cell towers would be completely wiped out along with the electricity to power wifi. Our team was limited to roaming signals that did not allow for group texts and delayed the sending of WhatsApp texts (although that did work better than texting). When dealing with isolated, or vulnerable areas, I would recommend Zello, which is a walkie talkie app that works on data plans or WiFi, but was designed to operate in areas with weak signals.
If you are not affected by the disaster and trying to get information on a disaster area, the best resource is often Facebook. Community and government pages pop up or adapt to provide the most up to date information and first-hand accounts. Facebook has also implemented a “Crisis Response” section where people can mark themselves safe and you can find out disaster-related information.
As an employer, you need to make sure your team is safe. Not everyone has friends or family to turn to and you might not realize it, but you may be their only lifeline.
COVID-19 presents an entirely different set of circumstances for business continuity planning, where you might not be worried about reaching remote workers, as may happen after a natural environmental or weather-related disaster. But if everyone is going to be working from home, you will need to devise an ongoing communications plan. Will it be email, Slack, WhatsApp (good for large groups), Gotomeeting or Zoom, Google Meet or a mix and match of them all?
It’s also important to over communicate and keep everyone in the loop. It’s recommended that you have a system to check in with each and every employee every week. This does not mean mandatory Zoom calls or that one employee has to check in on everyone every day, but please remember that not all employees have the safety and support of a family unit, and someone from your office might be their sole outreach connection.
We are now in a situation where remote work is causing fatigue, especially when coupled with remote schooling. It’s just as important to check on employees’ mental health now, 6 months in, as it was in the beginning. But, remember there is no one-size-fits all way to approach this. It will depend on the size of your company, the personalities, etc. This is a good time to pull everyone together around your company’s Mission, Vision and Values statements as they should be drafted to serve as an open playbook no matter what the circumstances your company might be facing.
2. Implement Dual Access Security and Cyber Safety Protocols.
One of the most important functions of a business continuity plan is for a company to make sure paychecks are issued during business interruptions. Many employees have automatic withdrawals that do not delay for natural or other disasters. Making sure paychecks hit employee accounts on a timely basis is one of your main priorities. This means that you need to have dual access to accounts, and if you need dual approvals for ACHs or wires, you must ensure that at least two key executives have uninterrupted access to the internet AND the company’s bank accounts at all times. Plus, you will need a backup plan in case someone in the chain of approvals becomes suddenly unavailable.
If you are mailing paper checks, you might have to consider that mail delivery may be delayed, and banks might not be open or accessible. It may be time to move all employees to automatic deposits.
Please note that there are cyber criminals who prey on people and companies who are affected by disasters. Be wary about all post-emergency requests for wires and take all necessary cyber-security precautions both before and after. Make sure all your employees know to call and check if they receive any notices from vendors about a change in payment systems.
3. Pre-Designate Essential Employees.
Designate essential employees and communicate who they are to the entire team. These are the ones who if following a natural disaster should get to the office if it is safe and allowed by local authorities. Or individuals who are regularly in contact with the leadership team and can relay vital information. My recommendation is look for those employees who are system thinkers (they will best be able to prioritize in an emergency) and also good communicators. Be very thoughtful about this and abide by all local emergency regulations.
4. Cross-Train Employees and Document Procedures.
Following a natural disaster or during a period of business interruption, not all of your employees may be able to work continuously (they might not have ability to work from home — limited access to the internet or even become ill and unavailable). Or else your company might implement furloughs, and in which case, you cannot ask a furloughed employee to do any work. This is why it is a best practice to cross-train crucial employee responsibilities in advance and document as many processes as possible.
Just one department working in a “silo” could be detrimental to the entire company in an emergency situation.
In today’s global economy you will always have clients and customers who are not affected by the business interruption in the same way, and you will need to continue servicing them with only minimal delays.
5. Create a Client Communications Plan.
As leaders, it’s tough to admit to clients that you are not operating at full capacity. But the alternative is under-delivering. I think we now all understand that natural disasters and business interruptions happen. Transparency builds trust. If you have taken the steps outlined above to build your business continuity plan, your clients should understand if service delivery is not operating on the same schedule. If they don’t, then maybe it’s time to find new clients.
6. Develop Employment Policy Plans Specific to the Business Interruption.
When you have a prolonged situation like we do with COVID-19, it’s important to be aware of HR issues, as well as local, state and federal regulations that are often changing by the hour. I recommend having a local attorney you can contact who is an expert in this area and designate a leadership team member(s) to be responsible for keeping up to date with the latest information pertinent to your business and industry.
7. Go back to your Mission, Vision and Values Statements.
Your Mission, Vision and Values (MVV) statements are your company playbook. During emergencies we are often experiencing unprecedented situations and a lack of communication. Decision-making by the leadership team and your key employees should be guided by your MVV statements. If they are solid statements, it should provide enough guidance for all of your employees to make decisions for themselves, for others, and for your clients during any sort of business interruption.
Putting plans in place might seem superfluous as it is a non-revenue generating use of time and resources, but future proof companies consider it like insurance. When disaster strikes, any upfront investment into business continuity planning could be exactly what keeps them in business.
Diane Danielson works with companies as a fractional COO/CMO in the Portland, ME area to develop business continuity plans as well as Mission, Vision and Values statements that solidify company cultures.